Daily iPad App: Final Fantasy Tactics

Final Fantasy Tactics first came out for the original PlayStation in 1997 as a more strategic take on the famous roleplaying game franchise. I didn't get around to playing it until 2001, but when I did, it turned out to be a peerless game that still ranks among my all-time favorites. Between a deep combat and character growth system that satisfied the stat nerd in me and an extremely well-crafted, almost Shakespearean story, the original PlayStation version consumed a solid two months of my free time 11 years ago. In 2007 I was excited to hear it was being re-released with an updated translation and some other tweaks, but I was then disappointed to hear that it would be exclusive to the PSP, a system I never had any interest in owning.

Final Fantasy Tactics was announced for iOS not long after the original iPad's debut, and right away I imagined the game fitting the then-new tablet like a glove. But a series of delays meant the port kept getting pushed back, and it wasn't until over a year after its initial announcement that Final Fantasy Tactics came to the iPhone... but not the iPad. Square Enix promised an iPad version within a month of the iPhone version's release, but Square Enix is definitely a company where you have to take release dates with a very large grain of salt.

Six months after the iPhone version launched, Final Fantasy Tactics has arrived at long last on the iPad, but at US$17.99 it may well be one of the most expensive games on the App Store. Any review of Final Fantasy Tactics for iPad has to answer two questions at minimum. First, how well does this extremely complex game translate to the iPad's simple, touch-driven interface? Second, is this game worth almost twenty bucks in a market dominated by an overwhelming majority of games that hover between $0.99 and $2.99?

First, I'll address the interface. Final Fantasy Tactics is a very deep game, one whose user interface was always fairly obtuse to begin with: menus within menus within menus, like the designers were predicting the film Inception years in advance. That complex and highly layered interface carries over from the earlier versions onto the iPad; in fact, as far as I can tell Square Enix essentially ported the PSP version to iOS while barely revisiting the interface at all.

Without having re-optimized the game's controls for a touchscreen (aside from a welcome tweak that lets you rotate battlefields to any angle), Final Fantasy Tactics' interface can often be a chore to wade through. Even at nearly twenty hours into the game, I still find myself struggling to target units on the battlefield correctly on a first attempt. The game's veritable explosion of menus will prove daunting for novice players to navigate on the iPad's screen; this is not a game an eight-year-old is going to enjoy unless his/her I.Q. and patience are both off the charts.

None of this should imply that the game is unplayably confusing, but as I navigate through the mostly menu-driven UI I'm silently thankful that Apple didn't simply shove OS X onto the iPad and instead went with a more simplistic approach in iOS. If Final Fantasy Tactics' interface is anything to go by, using a full port of OS X on a touchscreen would be maddening if I had to do it every day.

It's worth noting that the iPad port doesn't suffer from the infamous slowdowns that plagued the PSP version of the game and earlier versions of the iPhone port. Final Fantasy Tactics runs extremely smoothly on my iPad 2, and the app fully launches within only a few seconds, much faster than I expected it to.

The second big question: Is Final Fantasy Tactics worth eighteen bucks? It depends. Final Fantasy Tactics on iPad is definitely worth $17.99 if:

  • You played the original on PlayStation, but never the PSP remake

  • You played the PSP remake but don't have a PSP anymore

  • You're a fan of tabletop-style or strategic RPGs and looking for a challenge

  • You don't already own the iPhone version

For me, Final Fantasy Tactics on iPad was a guaranteed launch-day purchase regardless of the price, and the relatively high cost of the iPhone version actually makes the iPad version look like a bargain by comparison. Final Fantasy Tactics costs just two dollars more on the iPad than on the iPhone, and the game's interface is unquestionably better-suited to the iPad's much larger screen. The game has an epic play length, too, especially compared to the more disposable "pick up and play" titles that litter the App Store's $0.99 price tier.

Though $17.99 sounds like a big outlay in the App Store economy, by the time you've played all the way through Final Fantasy Tactics that may well turn out to be fifty cents or less for every hour of gameplay. I don't remember exactly how much time I spent on the original PlayStation version, but it was probably in excess of a hundred hours.

Whether that $18 is well spent is harder to answer if you're new to the game or the genre. Final Fantasy Tactics is difficult to master; the game's difficulty is punishing, especially in the earliest chapters of the game. If you're more used to the "press X to not die" gameplay that Final Fantasy XIII offered, you may find Final Fantasy Tactics' learning curve unforgivably harsh.

On the other hand, if you're looking for a game that has one of the most well-crafted stories ever written for a video game combined with gameplay that has almost limitless options, that may well be worth the $18 all by itself.